24 February 2017 | 12:00 am
UFC fans may remember 2016 primarily for something that happened outside of competition, specifically the sale of the promotion to new owners. But the year also saw plenty of action inside the cage, some of which will change the landscape of the sport in years to come. New stars were born, and some old ones flamed out, occasionally in violent fashion. And while headlines will skew to the most memorable fights or most famous fighters, it’s worth taking a moment to look back at the bigger picture of bouts and how they went down.
In 2016, 493 fights took place inside the UFC’s Octagon, for a total of 5,488 minutes of active fight time. These took place on 41 separate UFC fight cards in nine countries, including first-time visits to Holland and Croatia. The 41 fight cards in a single year are not the most ever for the UFC (2014 had 46), but the general trend is now officially downward after climbing for so many years. Expect slightly fewer cards in 2017 as the promotion stabilizes under new ownership. Here’s how every UFC fight ended in 2016, all in one graph. Fights are summarized by outcome method and by weight class, with title fights individually noted.
How fights end
About half of all UFC fights will end inside the distance, but more so by TKO than by submission. The finish rate for 2016 was 49 percent, thanks to 153 KO/TKOs and 89 submissions. That’s just slightly down from 50 percent the prior year, but generally holding steady. This is well below the early years of the sport, even after judges were introduced. But as more fighters compete in smaller divisions, and as all fighters generally get more skilled and competitive, the days of lopsided matchups or severe technique mismatches are long gone. And yet here we are, entering the most advanced era yet for the sport, and there are still plenty of finishes happening at the highest levels.
When fights do go to the cards, there’s not always agreement from the judges. Of the 248 fights ending in a decision, 65 of them saw disagreement from at least one judge leading to a split or majority decision. That’s a disagreement rate of 26 percent, up slightly from the year before. With the recent changes to MMA scoring criteria, we should see more 10-8 rounds from judges. In an otherwise close fight, this could lead to more majority decisions and draws. It’s too early in the process of adopting new rules to see this playing out, but disagreement among MMA judges is nothing new, and it certainly isn’t going anywhere. In fact, with changes to scoring, we should see more score volatility in 2017 than ever before.
The “center of mass” for UFC fights is just inside the lightweight division. Slightly more than half of all fights took place at 155 pounds or lighter. This is the new normal for a promotion that didn’t even have a lightweight division a decade ago, let alone even smaller weight classes or any women’s divisions. However, while the average body mass of a UFC fighter drops as the roster expands in lighter divisions, for the first time we are seeing a reversal of the shrinking-fighter trend that was part of the UFC’s evolution. Weight-cutting practices became mandatory in order to pack as much frame size onto the scales as possible, and with hopes of facing smaller opponents, the general rule of thumb was that fighters went down in weight class, not up. But the banning of intravenous fluids for post-weigh-in recovery in 2016 has led some fighters to move up a weight class. This is another trend we’ll be watching in 2017.
Despite the noise introduced by fighters competing in more than one division, the larger trend of bigger fighters seeing more knockouts still holds true. While submission rates are more stable across divisions, knockdown rates rise with size. Big trees fall hard. Heavyweights finished exactly half of all their fights by strikes, more than five times the rate of the smallest men’s divisions, the flyweights.
A total of 22 title fights took place in 10 divisions throughout 2016, and 2017 will bring the newest women’s division at featherweight. Of these title fights, half went the distance and half ended with a finish, in line with the general finish rates. But those finishes were mostly with a bang, as 10 of 11 title-win finishes came by TKO. The lone submission finish was Miesha Tate’s fifth-round choke-out of Holly Holm in an upset for the women’s bantamweight division, although finishes were nothing new for that division, as every UFC title fight in the history of women’s bantamweights has ended early.
The heavyweights also saw some violence, with both title fights ending with Stipe Miocic earning a TKO victory. And while the welterweight division saw just one title-fight knockout thanks to Tyron Woodley’s upset of Robbie Lawler, the new trend for that division is contrary to the long period of mostly decisions for title fights in years past. And with two powerful strikers locked in for a rematch at the next major UFC event, the king of that division is likely to be a dangerous KO threat for the foreseeable future.
Highlight reel stats
MMA is a highlight-reel-friendly sport, and the opening credits of every UFC show select from the ample fodder the fighters competing each night provide.
Here are the key highlights from 2016:
In 2017, we’ll see more events without Dana White or Bruce Buffer present. Already gone are familiar faces like Mike Goldberg and Joe Silva. But the influx of new talent on the roster, and in the broadcast booth, ensures that the UFC will keep the show rolling. And even while we monitor subtle changes affecting the sport in the coming year, we know we’ll be able to rely on a steady supply of action and new highlights provided by the best fighters in the world.
Raw data is provided by Fight Metric, with analysis by Reed Kuhn, author of “Fightnomics: The Hidden Numbers and Science in Mixed Martial Arts.”